How a drawing I made in kindergarten got my startup to Silicon Valley

Zack Banack at the Great New York State Fair ’18

Hi, my name’s Zack and I have a story. This is a story about video games, losing a best friend, and becoming business partners with Gwyneth Paltrow.

This is a story that will resonate with those who have that inescapable, suffocating desire to make things — anything.

But, most importantly, this is a story about viewing failure as a means of self-improvement.

Allow me to introduce myself.

Who is Zack Banack?

I spend my mornings in the classroom, my afternoons working, and my nights making passion projects. Some people call me an “entrepreneur”. I don’t care much for that term; the internet has tainted that label for me.

I’m a Management Information Systems student studying at the Rochester Institute of Technology (‘19) in Rochester, New York. I’m getting my minor in Marketing. Even though I’m working towards a business degree, my true passions lay in creative developments. I love web and mobile, game making, and software engineering.

Make time to make things

I’m always making new things. For example, in early 2019 I created 2020 Colors. 2020 Colors is a color encyclopedia for designers and marketers. This website renders unique and information-heavy pages for over 16 million colors.

2020 Colors, your knowledge base for all things color

Why did I make this? Because I wanted to see if I could.

I’m always trying to one-up myself. But, sometimes, that means I bite off more than I can chew. Most of my side projects fall through the cracks, but some become businesses. This is where my MIS degree comes in handy.

Like any good adventure, mine begins with Super Mario

Growing up, I was fascinated by video games. It wasn’t so much the games themselves that I fell in love with. Rather, the concept of controlling characters in an alternate world piqued my interests.

I grew up with a Nintendo 64, a Game Boy Advance, and a wild imagination. From the moment I put my hand on a joystick, I knew that I wanted to craft my own story. I was dead-set on making video games.

How to (not) make video games

Being ten years old and without access to a computer, I thought video games were consecutive drawings, much like that of animation. I was under the impression that every possible “frame” had to be drawn individually. It was an absolutely absurd assumption in hindsight, but that’s exactly what I did.

I hand-drew hundreds and hundreds of storyboard frames.

I couldn’t fit all my childhood drawings into a single image if I tried.

My work wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t pretty, and there was no way of actually playing these so-called games. Although, I felt like I was doing something to get closer to my dream.

You can read more about my “paper games” in the long-form, picture-filled blog post, From Crayons to Coding.

Each one of these games used about an entire ream of paper and a pack or two of markers or crayons. My parents didn’t get mad at all the resources I went through, but rather praised my creativity and dedication.

There’s fun to be had in being technical.

Even at such a young age, I tried to be realistic in my design. I would add in menus, character selection screens, naming systems, flowcharts, and so on.

If you want to learn how to code, make video games

Fast forward a few years and I eventually did learn how to make games! I discovered a piece of software called GameMaker. It’s still around today, over a decade later. And, it’s more powerful than ever.

GameMaker was my first step into the world of programming. Making video games is a great way to learn computer logic as games are goal-oriented in nature. Break down the components of a complex game and learn to make them one-by-one.

The more I made, the less I drew. But, I paid homage. In 2010, I released a PC game called Paper Dreams. This game was special because all the sprites were drawn with crayons or markers on paper and then scanned to my computer.

Paper Dreams is colorful and hectic.

Paper Dreams and its sequel were reflections of my childhood, where I wanted so badly for my drawings to come to life for me to play with.

I released over thirty games and published them to play on Game Jolt. Most aren’t very good now that my age (and skill levels) are older. But, I take pride in them. Some of them were even quite popular! In fact, TimeStill was featured on G4TV’s Attack of the Show.

Just a glimpse at some of the 30+ games I’ve made. Most were two-dimensional and inspired by the 8-bit era.

Remembering my roots: the coolest project I’ve ever made

Keeping with the hand-drawn trend, I prototyped a project that real-time transforms photographs of doodles into playable games. Had something like this existed when I was six, my world would have been transformed. Now, I want to create tools for the dreamers, the six-year-old mes.

I highly recommend watching the video below. It’s one of my favorite projects to date.

The tools you use don’t matter

Self-branded as “The Most Accurate Snow Day Calculator”

In 2014, I took home the Technology Alliance of Central New York’s “Student Technologist of the Year” award for my work on the iPhone app, Whiteout Watch.

Whiteout Watch is now defunct, but it was a service for eager school-aged children. During winter months, it would deliver next-day probabilities of snow days in school districts. With almost 90% prediction accuracy, I was branded “The Snowman” by local news. You can read more about this project on the Syracuse.com article.

But here’s the thing: I made the Whiteout Watch utility in GameMaker, a piece of software meant for video game development.

Don’t let tools dictate what you can and can’t do. Push the perceived boundaries of the tools you’re using. Work smart, not hard. Right? Just be sure you don’t get overly-comfortable and put off learning new tools when necessary.

Coming full circle

Video games got me into coding. Coding got me making projects (like Whiteout Watch). Making projects got me a job making video games.

I don’t make games as a hobby much anymore. But since late 2015, I’ve worked as the lead front-end HTML5 game developer for a small studio. I’ve impacted over a million lives through my work across various genres. I’ve made everything under the sun from casual games to children’s educational games to casino and high-stakes games, and am even starting to tip-toe into MMORPGs.

If you couldn’t already tell, I’m an advocate of getting code in classrooms. Programming is an invaluable skill for people of all ages. Through a side project of mine called The Step Event, I’m creating educational game development content and creating the tutorials I wish I had when I was starting.

Without the desire to create video games, I wouldn’t have gotten the same exposure to programming. I was given an outlet to see my imagination come to life.

Writing code has already taken me so far. It’s allowed me to create entertainment as well as products to solve some of the world’s modern problems.

Next, you’ll learn about my most ambitious project to date, Afterbox.

Afterbox and my debut on Apple Music’s original series, Planet of the Apps

Mid-2016, I was contacted by a talent agent asking if I wanted to seed investment pitch Whiteout Watch for an upcoming show about app developers.

I declined the offer to pitch Whiteout Watch. I countered the offer with Afterbox, a service I was prototyping from my dorm room.

Afterbox is an end-of-life preparation service… Quite different from the calculator toy.

I believe in silver linings

My greatest accomplishment resulted from my greatest loss.

My RIT roommate, my best friend, Matthew, lost his life unexpectedly our sophomore year. This event instilled in me the harsh reality that young adults are under-prepared for what they’re leaving behind.

As a then-20-year-old, creating a business surrounding such an often-viewed unsettling topic (death) raised some eyebrows.

I set out to change the stigma in the most non-intimidating way possible. Through Afterbox’s friendly user experience, I got people thinking about the fragility of life without scaring them. Here’s promotional materials for the app.

Might as well go big

Me and Gwyneth Paltrow. (I’ve lost 120 pounds since this picture was taken!)

In the summer of 2017, I starred on Apple Music’s reality show, Planet of the Apps. Episode 9, Might as Well Go Big, documented my journey founding, developing, and getting grant-funding for Afterbox, LLC.

I pitched my prototype to celebrities and influencers Jessica Alba, Gwyneth Paltrow, Gary Vaynerchuk, and will.i.am.

Lightspeed Venture Partners gave Afterbox financial support and invited me and my co-founder, Noah Chrysler — better known as the personality behind the RIT Newsman — to join their 2017 Summer Fellowship program.

The Summer Fellowship program was invaluable. Noah and I participated in hands-on activities and weekly assignments honing in on the markets Afterbox would be penetrating. The experiences provided us with real-world examples of how to acquire customers and build a sustainable business. The Fellowship was a rich collaborative environment with a plethora of resources, both capital, and networking.

One of our mentors, Jeremy Liew, wrote a lovely Medium article about Afterbox: Supporting student founders like Zack Banack at Afterbox.

Palo Alto, California

Noah Chrysler (left), Zack Banack (right). Photo credit: Sugandha Dubey

With a little budget and big ambitions, Noah and I grew a 7-member-strong team under tight deadlines. We wanted Afterbox live on the App Store to download alongside the worldwide August 8 episode premiere.

This was such a grandiose opportunity, something we could not pass up. Hundreds of thousands of eyes would be on Afterbox. We’d never get exposure as concentrated as this again. We needed to make the deadline.

We missed the deadline.

Our entire team put in a tremendous effort, but it wasn’t enough. The scope of the project was too large. More importantly, I wasn’t fit for being a founder. I wasn’t prepared for how much blood, sweat, and tears there would be.

I thought I could “just” start a company. But there are no “justs” in Silicon Valley. This made me grow a larger appreciation for the startup scene and work ethic as a whole.

While Afterbox is offline for the foreseeable future, I still receive emails weekly from fans of the show thanking me. They tell me they’re grateful for getting them to “finally” create a last will and testament. Regardless of service tangibility, the world is a slightly better place now. Although, it’s still missing dear Matthew.

The consistency in my life has been from coding

If isolated, each “chapter” of my life seems so distinct and separated. But there are definitive segues bridging the gaps.

  1. Childhood creativity made me want to make video games.
  2. GameMaker got me coding and helped me launch Whiteout Watch.
  3. Whiteout Watch got my foot in the door to bring Afterbox to the masses.
  4. Afterbox failed, but I came out a stronger person with more self-awareness.

Even though I see those four points laid out, I can’t possibly predict the fifth point. Sure, I can take some wild guesses based on what projects I’m currently developing. But it’s the unpredictability of life that’s almost refreshing to me.

I spend so much time immersed in computers and math. I know precisely the inputs required to produce specific outputs in the digital world. Human life, desires, and emotions in the 21st century aren’t as mechanical as the computers we use. It’s true that behavior can be predicted to an extent. But for the time being, we’re still just bags of flesh trying our best.

If I had to summarize this bio with a single sentence, it would be the following: Be grateful for what you have but be hungry for more.

That’s all (for now), folks!

Thank you for reading! I’ll leave you with some links.


  • Check out my personal blog, where I post interesting stories and coding tutorials. One of my most popular posts is about a mysterious Nickelodeon animation that went missing for over 30 years, Clock Man!
  • View some of my open-source projects on GitHub.
  • Learn how to program video games. If you ask yourself “how are video games made?” or “how do I make video games?”, look no further than The Step Event: game maker resources.

Alexander Yu Huang

Salutations!

Alexander Yu Profile Picture

About Me

My name is Alexander Yu Huang. I am a SOIS student at Rochester Institute of Technology studying to become a Full Stack developer. SOIS, or School of Individualized Studies, is a program where students can create a degree that is personalized to their needs and interests. It is an excellent program for students who feel dissatisfied with the courses taken in other degrees. However, students must provide a valid reasoning behind the courses chosen to receive this degree.

Full Stack Developer

For my SOIS degree I have a focus on Computer Science and on Information Sciences and Technology with a minor in Marketing. The courses I take in both these areas will allow me to pursue my career as a Full Stack developer. A Full Stack developer is known as the “jack of all trades, master of none” in the computer world. They have knowledge in both the front-end and back-end of a program or website. Although they don’t specialize in anything, they are the most proficient in connecting both sides together. This is due to being able to understand the whole program or website on a macro level. I want to be a Full Stack developer because I enjoy “seeing the big picture.” I like to see everything work together but not necessarily how each individual component works by itself in detail.

I mentioned that I have a minor in Marketing. Although marketing is not something people normally think of when it comes to being a Full Stack developer, I feel that marketing is helpful for this career. SEO is a very important aspect when it comes to designing a website. It dictates how well your website is doing and whether or not there may be improvements to make. By knowing about marketing beforehand I am able to design a website with SEO in mind and bring about satisfactory results.

If you would like to know more about me, feel free to check out the links below!

Resume

LinkedIn